Natural Foods Merchandiser

Would you like bacteria with that?

As consumers embrace friendly bacteria, an increasing diversity of carrier foods is emerging. While dairy products, such as yogurt, are natural homes, you'll soon see bacteria coming to muffins, chocolates, smoothies, cereals and more.

Food and beverage formulators face a variety of problems with traditional probiotics: Cells don't survive high heat and pressure of food processing, they die quickly on the shelf, and they cannot survive stomach acids to populate the gut.

Suppliers have responded appropriately with strains that survive both manufacturing processes and gastric acidity to colonize the gastrointestinal-tract lining. Health benefits range from treating diarrhea to retarding tumor growth. Some research suggests probiotics could help extend lifespan by decades. Still, there is more research to be done, and so far marketers are only able to get away with soft ‘wellness' claims.

It was only in 2005 that researchers and suppliers began debating which was better: single probiotic strains or combinations. It seems that groups of three to eight individual probiotic strains in a formulation have won sway. To be sure, some manufacturers say certain probiotic strains can be antagonistic to each other. Also, different strains can target different health conditions—all probiotic strains are not created equally. The upshot is that manufacturers and marketers need to choose wisely.

In 2008 researchers began seeing greatly enhanced effects when probiotics were delivered with prebiotics—a food for probiotics—giving rise to the term ‘synbiotics.' Preliminary research has shown, for instance, that galacto-oligosaccharides might trump fructo-oligosaccharides as an anti-adhesive fiber to flush out E. coli and other pathogens from the gastrointestinal tract. Still, only a few savvy manufacturers have picked up on these important findings and integrated prebiotics with their products. Colorado-based prebiotic supplier GTC Nutrition recently aligned with consumer healthcare company Ganeden Biotech, an Ohio-based consumer healthcare company and probiotic manufacturer. The two aim to launch a range of digestive- and immune-health products.

One of the larger R&D issues is that nobody knows for sure which prebiotic fiber best matches up with a particular probiotic strain. There's no question, however, that enough research has been done on synbiotic blends to make them attractive to finished-goods manufacturers. Expect to see an increasing diversity of food-based delivery systems–from dairy to baked goods. We may begin to find out in 2009 which ones consumers embrace.

—Todd Runestad

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXX/number 1/p. 31

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